Nicholas Murray Butler

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Nicholas Murray Butler

The American educator Nicholas Murray Butler (1862-1947) was president of Columbia University during its period of greatest expansion, in which it acquired an international reputation as a center of research and scholarship.

Nicholas Murray Butler was born in Elizabeth, N.J., on April 2, 1862, the son of a manufacturer. He graduated from Columbia College, New York City, in 1882 and earned his doctorate there in 1884. After a year's study in Berlin and Paris he returned to Columbia to become an assistant in philosophy. His interest in the education of teachers led him to help organize, and to head from 1886 to 1891, the institution which later became Teachers College of Columbia University. In 1890 he was promoted to professor of philosophy and also became dean of the newly created faculty of philosophy, a position he held until his elevation to the acting presidency in 1901.

In 1902 Butler became permanent president and remained in office until his retirement in 1945. The transformation of Columbia into a modern university had already begun under his predecessors, but under Butler's leadership the school experienced a tremendous increase in endowment, buildings, size of student body, and number and quality of faculty. An indefatigable speechmaker, clubman, and fund raiser, Butler strove to expand and deepen the material and intellectual resources of his institution, building it into an international leader in advanced study and research.

An active worker for the Republican party for most of his life, Butler attended national conventions from 1880 on, frequently as a voting delegate. He was chosen as candidate for vice president of the United States in 1912, when the vice president died in office. In the 1920 Republican convention he was nominated by the New York delegation as a candidate for the presidency and received 69 1/2 votes. Although a firm proponent of liquor regulation, he opposed prohibition and fought the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. Many presidents sought his advice on matters of public policy.

Butler became interested in the international peace movement well before World War I, becoming chairman of the American branch of Conciliation Internationale in 1907. He strongly supported the League of Nations. From 1925 to 1945 he headed the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1931, which he shared with Jane Addams. Butler died in New York City on Dec. 7, 1947.

Further Reading

Butler's life is best studied in his autobiography, Across the Busy Years: Recollections and Reflections (2 vols., 1939-1940). Richard Whittemore, Nicholas Murray Butler and Public Education (1970), is a useful study. Butler's career is also recounted in Horace Coon, Columbia: Colossus on the Hudson (1947). A guide to his written work was compiled by Milton Halsey Thomas, Bibliography of Nicholas Murray Butler, 1872-1932 (1934). His work at Columbia is recorded in Edward C. Elliot, ed., The Rise of a University, vol. 2: The University in Action (1937), which is composed of excerpts from Butler's annual reports as president of Columbia, topically arranged.

Additional Sources

Marrin, Albert, Nicholas Murray Butler, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1976. □

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Nicholas Murray Butler, 1862–1947, American educator, president of Columbia Univ. (1902–45), b. Elizabeth, N.J., grad. Columbia (B.A., 1882; Ph.D., 1884). Holding a Columbia fellowship, he studied at Paris and Berlin, specializing in philosophy. Beginning in 1885 he was made successively assistant, tutor, and adjunct professor of philosophy at Columbia. He became (1886) president of the Industrial Education Association, reshaped it into what is today Teachers College, Columbia, and was (1889–91) the institution's first president. He was intimately associated with John W. Burgess in the struggle to create a university organization and was largely responsible for the expansion of Columbia College into Columbia Univ. In 1890 he became professor of philosophy and education and dean of the Faculty of Philosophy and in 1901 acting president of Columbia. The next year he formally succeeded Seth Low as president. He instituted the Summer Session, University Extension (now the School of General Studies), the School of Journalism, the Medical Center, and other units that are an integral part of the present-day university.

An advocate of peace through education, Butler helped to establish the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, of which he was a trustee and later president (1925–45). His efforts in behalf of disarmament and international peace won him international prestige, and he shared with Jane Addams the 1931 Nobel Peace Prize. Prominent in national, state, and New York City politics, he remained a regular Republican party member despite differences with its platforms. Though a close friend of Theodore Roosevelt, he refused to join the Progressive movement of 1912, and that year Butler received the Republican electoral votes for vice president after the death of Vice President James S. Sherman, the regularly nominated candidate. He later was the leading Republican advocate of the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment, urged economy in government, and supported local reform movements. He was (1928–41) president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

His books include Education in the United States (1910), The International Mind (1913), The Meaning of Education (rev. ed. 1915), Scholarship and Service (1921), The Faith of a Liberal (1924), The Path to Peace (1930), Looking Forward (1932), Between Two Worlds (1934), and The World Today (1946).

See his autobiography, Across the Busy Years (2 vol., 1939–40); biography by M. Rosenthal (2006); R. Whittemore, Nicholas Murray Butler and Public Education (1970); Bibliography of Nicholas Murray Butler, 1872–1932 (1934).